African American Genealogy Case Study: Researching Enslaved People Taken or Sold Downriver

I am working on a paid research case that has gripped my interest. The research project involves genealogy and researching enslaved people taken or sold downriver. One reason why this case intrigues me is it is very different from the research I have done for my own family. On both of my parents’ sides of the family tree that involves enslaved people, my parents’ enslaved ancestors were kept mainly within their respective enslaving families. Their direct ancestors also rarely left the colony or state where they were enslaved.

The case I am working on couldn’t be more different. It involves the multiple movements of enslaved people across the nascent United States.  I thought I would do a write-up in the form of a case study for the work I have done to-date.

One of the ancestors the client expressed a keen desire to learn more about is Richard Jackson. I knew this was going to be interesting as soon as I found Richard in the U.S. Federal 1870 Census:

Figure 1 Source Citation: Year: 1870; Census Place: Police District 1, Madison, Mississippi; Roll: M593_739; Page: 30A; Family History Library Film: 552238 | click for larger image

Four things immediately became apparent from this census record.

The first piece of information I noticed was that Richard was born in Tennessee. This place of birth was consistently provided in every document associated with Richard. This information tells me he was old enough when he left Tennessee and arrived in Mississippi to know something about his immediate family history. There will be more on the topic of his origins later.

The second piece of information that caught my attention was the place of birth for his wife, Martha. She too hailed from Tennessee. The odds that Richard and Martha were born in Tennessee and now were husband and wife in Madison County, Mississippi, felt more than just a coincidence. My hunch was they were bought or bequeathed together in Tennessee and brought to Mississippi together. That is my working hypothesis at the moment. A shared experience – leaving their native Tennessee for Mississippi – brought them together. They shared a unique bond from the other enslaved people who lived on the same property in 1870. That bond would include childhood memories of Tennessee and the people they had known and loved whom they’d left behind when they were transported out of the state of their birth.

Richard had amassed an amount of personal property to the value of $300 in 1870. At this stage of my research, I don’t know the nature of the work he did to earn the money he used to acquire the personal property of that value. At this stage in the research, it tells me that Richard was an industrious man.

The third item of interest was the land he was living on in 1870. Richard was not the owner of the land where his house was located. The owner of that land was Elizabeth Jordan Howard-Kyle-Withers. Elizabeth was immediately intriguing. Note that the land and personal property was hers – and not the property of her husband, the English immigrant, Thomas Withers. That was unusual for the time period. Typically, husbands had control over their wives’ property and assets. I will return to this couple later.

The fourth item that piqued my curiosity was the Mrs. Charlotte Watts who was living two doors down from Richard and also living on Elizabeth’s land. Note her place of birth: Tennessee. And note her approximate age: 38 years old. At the moment, the research hypothesis is that either Charlotte and Richard were siblings, or Charlotte and Martha were siblings. Again, it seems unlikely that there were now three people coming from the same state who were of the same generation and living on the same land in 1870 didn’t have a connection to one another in Tennessee.

So how do we get from Mississippi in 1870 back to Tennessee?

Now that is a question! It’s a question we have to tackle bit by bit…chipping away from the unknown to the known.

Before I go back in time, I had to go forwards. Working forwards in time gives me information about the Jackson family and its history in Madison County, Mississippi. In the course of this research, I came to learn the family has deep roots in Madison County – specifically Canton and Livingston Townships. I have a sense of its naming conventions and the families the Jacksons married. This information may or may not prove useful when it comes to pushing the Jackson family saga backwards in time into Tennessee. For now, it’s valuable information to provide the client. It fills out her knowledge of her family and its history in Madison County.

The U.S. Federal 1880 Census provided more information:

Figure 2 Source Citation: Year: 1880; Census Place: Livingston, Madison, Mississippi; Roll: 656; Page: 127D; Enumeration District: 042 | click for larger image

The 1880 Census tells a bit more about Richard and Martha’s ancestry. Their place of birth remains the same, as does their approximate year of birth. However, I now learned that Richard’s parents both came from Maryland. Martha’s parents were both born in Tennessee. Again, a picture is emerging of two enslaved people who knew their ancestry back to their parents…at a minimum. They may have known more than this in terms of their ancestry, as in information about their grandparents. The Census wasn’t designed to capture information beyond rudimentary details about their parents.

When it comes to Richard, we know that his parents were born in Maryland and brought to Tennessee at some unknown point. We know this because Richard was born in Tennessee and not Maryland. I don’t know if Richard and Martha’s parents were also brought to Mississippi or were left behind in Tennessee or sold away somewhere else. There is more work to be done to reveal where Richard and Martha were born as well as uncover the identity of their Tenessee enslaver(s) at the time of their birth. For Richard, there will be an additional effort to push the story of his parents’ histories back to Maryland. For Martha, it will mean researching her parents’ Tennessee roots.

One final thing that needed to be done at this stage: unveiling Martha’s maiden name. Two Social Security Applications and a death certificate confirmed what her maiden name was:

Figure 3 Source Citation: U.S., Social Security Applications and Claims Index, 1936-2007 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2015.

I did a Livingston and Canton, MS search for African Americans with the Rose surname. I found a handful of black and mulatto Roses. They appear to be related to Martha Rose. Given their ages and where they said their parents were born (Tennessee), Martha’s most likely familial relationship to these Roses will be as a sibling. Or perhaps she was their cousin.

I also checked the Freedmen’s Bureau Marriages, 1861-1872 and Freedman’s Bank Records, 1865-1874 collections on FamilySearch for more information about Richard and Martha. Unfortunately, there wasn’t a marriage record for them nor did either of them open a bank account with the Freedmen’s Bank. Nor does there appear to be an 1866-7 Freedmen’s Cohabitation Register for Madison County, Georgia. The various Freedmen’s Bureau records that feature so largely in my upper South freedmen and women genealogy was bone dry when it came to records for Richard Jackson.

Back to Elizabeth Jordan Howard-Kyle-Withers and the 1870 Census

To research how Richard and Martha arrived in Mississippi, I have to know who enslaved them in Mississippi. Someone brought them from Tennessee to Mississippi. Understanding the history of their enslavement in Mississippi would hopefully provide me with usable clues to trace their journey back to Tennessee.  To understand this piece of the puzzle, I have to understand their relationship to Mrs.Elizabeth Withers.

Elizabeth Withers in the U.S. 1870 Federal Census. Source Citation: Year: 1870; Census Place: Police District 1, Madison, Mississippi; Roll: M593_739; Page: 30A; Family History Library Film: 552238

I’m not going to lie. I groaned more than little when I reviewed Elizabeth’s information. Her husband was born in England. While I am still searching for Thomas Wither’s immigration records, I’ve used his tax records to ferret out when he arrived on the scene in Madison County, Mississippi. He doesn’t appear to have resided in the country until some point after 1830. Considering the real and personal property given in the 1870 Census was attributed to his wife, it’s unlikely that he was an enslaver. While he benefitted from slavery, it appears that his wife was the legal enslaver of the former slaves on her land. We can rule him out as a person who could have either bough Richard and Martha, much less took them from Tennessee.

That left me with Elizabeth. She was born in Maine. Which means she had her own journey into Mississippi. Research on her revealed some complexities.

The land Elizabeth and Thomas Withers lived on in 1870 on belonged to her first husband, John Kyle of North Carolina and Madison County, Mississippi. Thomas Withers was her second husband. Perhaps, this explains why the land and the valuables were in her name and not Thomas’s. She was protecting her Kyle children’s inheritance.

 Elizabeth Howard-Kyle-Wither’s Freemen’s Labor Contracts

I hoped Freedmen’s Bureau Labor contracts would illuminate the working relationship between Richard and Elizabeth in 1870. Genealogy Adventures covers what Freedmen’s Labor Contract were –  and how you can work with them:

Elizabeth did use these contracts, which are available via FamilySearch:

Freedmen’s Labor Contract between Mrs. Elizabeth Withers and Lucy Ann Gage | Source Citation: “United States, Freedmen’s Bureau, Records of the Assistant Commissioner, 1865-1872,” images, FamilySearch ( : 23 March 2017), Mississippi > Roll 48, Labor contracts of freedmen, Oct-Dec 1865 > image 537 of 789; citing multiple NARA microfilm publications; Records of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, 1861 – 1880, RG 105; (Washington D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1969-1980).

Interestingly, there were no work contracts between Richard, Martha, their children, and Elizabeth. Indeed, Richard didn’t have a labor contract with anyone. The lack of a contract between Richard, his family, and Elizabeth is not unusual. There was no legal requirement for him to have one. He may have had the wherewithal to negotiate his own terms with Elizabeth and did so under his own steam. I know from previous research using labor contracts that additional nuggets of gold can be uncovered. That was not going to be the case with Richard. As the saying goes: it is what it is.

Col. John Kyle

The origins of Col. John Kyle, Elizabeth’s first husband, is something of a mystery. There are some intriguing clues that he may have come from Buncombe, North Carolina.  I’ve found a John Kyle there who seems to fit the bill and seems to disappear from North Carolina in the early 1830s – when Col. John Kyle makes an appearance in Mississippi. If I have found the correct John Kyle in North Carolina, he has North Carolina roots going back to his paternal grandfather. If the John Kyle I found in Buncombe is the same as Col. John Kyle, he had no direct connection to Tennessee. This means it would be unlikely – but not improbable – that he was the person who brought Richard and Martha into Mississippi.

John Kyle’s probate records sealed the deal.

John Kyle’s 1861 Probate Records

John Kyle died in Canton, Madison, MS, in 1861. His probate file is enormous, featuring hundreds of pages. If he was the enslaver of Richard, Martha, and their older children, I would expect to find the following names in his inventory of enslaved people: Richard (or some variant like Dick, Ricky, etc), Martha (or a variant like Mattie), Phyllis (born 1852), Isaac (or Ike)(born 1858), and Virgil (born 1859). Phyllis, Isaac, and Virgil would be listed as either children or small children.

Below is the list of enslaved people in John Kyle’s 1861 Madison County Estate Inventory:

click for larger image
click for larger image
Source Citation for 3x images: Mississippi, Wills and Probate Records, 1780-1982 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2015. | click each image for a larger version.

Note the absence of Richard and his family. From this, I can conclude that Richard, Martha weren’t John’s property.

Having ruled out John Kyle and Thomas Withers as the persons who could have brought the enslaved couple to Mississippi, that only leaves one other person – Elizabeth and her family.

A complex picture becomes, well, more complicated.

Nathan Goldsmith Howard, Esq

Born on 20 November 1793 in  Fryeburg, Oxford, Maine – Nathan was a man who was literally on the move. He is associated with Maine, Massachusetts, and New York – before a move to Illinois and, ultimately, Mississippi.

I’m currently in the midst of pinpointing his exact location prior to his arrival in Rankin County, Mississippi, which neighbors Madison County. The locations of the court cases he tried, tax records, U.S. General Land Office Records, plat maps, deeds and similar records are part and parcel of this process. This aspect of the research will hopefully reveal some association with Tennessee.

My first hypothesis was that Nathan purchased Richard and Martha en-route from Pennsylvania to Illinois. The Old National Route migratory route immediately sprang to mind:

It was a good, immediate guess. But an incorrect one. The Old National Road was too far to the north. It didn’t cut through Tennessee.  While it remains the most probable route Nathan took from the Mid-Atlantic Coast to Illinois, it’s not a path that would have intersected with Richard and Martha in Tennessee. For Nathan to have purchased them, he would have done so after he arrived in Illinois.

The Great Valley Road was another option.  However, the problem is no paper proof places Nathan in Tennessee:

Then it hit me. Perhaps I was looking at this the wrong way.  Nathan didn’t have to acquire Richard and Martha on his journey from the East Coast to Illinois. He could have bought them on his move from Illinois to Mississippi via one of two possible routes:

The first is down the Mississippi River

It’s not inconceivable that a man of some wealth would have wanted to travel in comfort with his family from Illinois to Mississippi.

There is a second option: The Natchez Trail

This option feels unlikely. However, Nathan and his family could have started their journey one way and ended up on the Natchez trail somewhere in Tennessee. However, I will admit, this option doesn’t feel right. I’ve learned to listen to my inner instincts. If I were a better man, I’d bet he arrived in Mississippi down the Mississippi River.

There are two hypotheses regarding the Mississippi River journey. Nathan could have bought Richard and Martha along the way in Tennessee. Planning for a new life, Nathan could have purchased several enslaved people he could immediately set to work when he and his family arrived in Rankin County. Alternatively, he could have bought them in Rankin County – meaning an unknown party brought the couple to Mississippi. This train of thought requires further research.

 Nathan Howard’s Rankin County Will

The obvious place to look for Richard and Martha would be in Nathan’s 1835 Rankin County probate records. The problem is his probate file either hasn’t been digitized, or it didn’t survive the Union Army’s burning of Rankin County. I’ve searched FamilySearch’s Mississippi Probate Records, 1781-1930 record set ( – going image by image. There is nothing for Nathan. This is a worry. When all else fails, FamilySearch typically has what I’m seeking.  Not in this case. I have to prepare myself for the possibility that Nathan’s probate records no longer exist.

In the meantime, I have written to the Rankin County Genealogical & Historical Society enquiring about the existence of Nathan’s probate records.

For now, I have a working hypothesis that Richard and Martha were in Rankin County with Nathan and his family. They were given to Elizabeth as dowry slaves when she married John Kirby. Which would explain why they – and their children – were her property, and not the property of either John Kirby or Thomas Withers.

A Quick Word about DNA

While my client hasn’t taken a DNA test to-date, DNA testing is a tool that could help in breaking through Richard and Martha’s brick walls. In this instance, once tested, s/he will want to look closely at 5th+ cousins with enslaved ancestors and families who never left Maryland to gain some possible insights into Richard Jackson’s parents’ origins. S/he will also want to take a close look at 4th+ cousin matches with families who never left Tennessee to pick up the trail of Richard’s siblings, if he had them, as well as Martha Rose’s family left behind in Tennessee.

Location, Location, Location

If your head isn’t spinning by this point…there is an additional piece of research to conduct. I’m reading about the formation of Rankin and Madison Counties. Knowing the provenance of where Richard, Martha, the Howard, and the Kyle families were living at specific points in time will help me better understand Richard and Martha’s story in Mississippi. For instance, some records pertaining to any of these individuals may be located in a neighboring county prior to the creation of Rankin and Madison Counties from older, previous counties.


This one example perfectly illustrates the challenges of researching enslaved ancestors who were sold or taken into the Deep South during the slavery era. Bear in mind – all of this research goes to answer what should be a straightforward question in any other genealogical context: how did two individuals who were born in Tennessee come to live in Mississippi.

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2 thoughts on “African American Genealogy Case Study: Researching Enslaved People Taken or Sold Downriver

  1. WOW! How crazy is the universe as I am currently creating my family tree and find this article written about my 4th- GG! My mind is seriously blown right now… thank you so much for conducting this research… I hope I can learn more.

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